The U.S. Mint may be known for producing the coins we use every day. But this tiny agency, just 1,700 employees strong, operates the world’s most secure vault – the U.S. Bullion Depository, commonly known as Fort Knox.
The depository, located adjacent to the U.S. Army base of the same name in Louisville, Kentucky, is where the largest portion of the United States' gold reserve is stored. During World War II, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Gettysburg Address, and the original copy of Britain’s sacred Magna Carta were all stored at the depository.
How famous is Fort Knox? So famous that international criminal mastermind Goldfinger tried to break in. If it wasn't for a cunning and handsome British MI6 agent, he may have succeeded.
Well – that was the plot of the 1964 James Bond movie, anyway. Don’t even think about channeling Goldfinger. In the real world, if you tried to crack into the vault you'd come face to face with 30,000 soldiers, 300 tanks, attack helicopters, artillery, and armored personnel carriers sitting just outside of Fort Knox.*
Then you have to go through all kinds of fences, including ones that are electrified. On your way to the vault, you have to tip-toe through a land mine peppered lawn. Your death-defying stroll would all be caught by the many video cameras and a radar that sweeps the entire compound. Laser triggered machine guns are said to be waiting for you too.
If you survive all the external security, (and really, come on), you will face a battalion of Mint Police officers guarding the 42 feet high, 121 feet wide depository. The depository’s walls are 4-foot thick granite walls lined with concrete and steel built to withstand any kind of attack. You won't get past the armed guards, but we'll tell you what's after that anyway.
Next is the 22-ton blast-proof vault door. The vault can only be opened if you find all the employees who have separate combinations. Those combos are known only to them and the door won't budge with just one or two because no one knows the whole thing. Oh yeah – the combinations change daily.
If you get through the door, you’ll have to break through smaller 27-inch-thick vaults constructed to withstand atomic bombs. Each of the vaults are sealed with a special tape that is designed to show any forced entry. Since you won't be making it that far, you'll just have to imagine the 4,500 tons of gold bars worth $180 billion stored in there.
Don't Worry – The U.S. Mint is Probably Already In Your Pocket
Operating Fort Knox sounds exciting (or terrifying depending on who you ask) but the U.S. Mint’s main responsibility is to produce coins for circulation – penny, dime, quarter, $1, as well as commemorative, collective, national, and precious coins. These coins are made at the Mint’s four printing facilities in Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point.
As the world’s largest coin manufacturer, the U.S. Mint produces between 14 billion and 20 billion circulating coins a year. Coins are usually made of copper and another element, such as zinc or nickel. Read about how coins are made here.
The agency and its employees take great pride in telling the stories of our country in an art form nobody else can. Each coin reminds us of the birth of this nation as the original Mint building was the first federal building erected by the U.S. government under the Constitution. As the agency puts it, “To hold a coin or medal produced by the U.S. Mint is to connect to the founding principles of our nation and the makings of our economy.”
The Mint generates its own income, meaning it doesn’t have to wait for annual funding from Congress to operate.
5 Fast Facts about Coins
- Mint marks "S","D","P", or "W" designate the Mint facility which produced the coin.
- The Mint once considered producing doughnut-shaped coins.
- The first Philadelphia Mint harnessed horses to drive the machinery that produced coinage.
- Lady Liberty adorned the face of the quarter for over 100 years before being replaced by George Washington in 1932.
- The Lincoln penny is the only coin in which the figure faces right.
Protecting the Coin Makers
Mint employees hold a special place in our history. In order to continue to do these amazing jobs, the employees joined together to form AFGE locals to have a voice at work. AFGE Locals represent these workers in the four states where the printing facilities are located, plus Fort Knox and Washington, D.C. where the headquarters is.
As the Mint is the world’s largest coin manufacturer, safety is a top priority for the union. AFGE locals, for example, are proud to have helped put in place a process to prevent all kinds of injuries.
The locals’ recent safety efforts involved so-called 'Lock Out, Tag Out', in which supervisors are required to turn off a malfunctioning machine and put a sign on it so employees know not to use it.
“This is important,” said Rhonda Sapp, president of AFGE National Mint Council 157. “Employees can be missing a limb. We’ve had people losing finger tips, broken hands because supervisors didn’t do it.”
Because of the union’s efforts, supervisors and employees are now retrained on safety issues.
“They’re taking safety more seriously,” she added.
AFGE, the largest federal employee union, is proud to represent Mint employees and other federal and D.C. government employees to make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs. For more information about our work at other agencies, visit www.afge.org.
*Fort Knox employees swear to secrecy and won’t confirm or deny the security measures they’re enforcing.